Damsel in Distress Trope

Damsel in Distress Trope

Rachael Litavecz

This 1953 advertisement for ketchup reads, “You mean a woman can open it?” (“Beyond Belief: Shocking Vintage Adverts from the ‘Golden Age’ “). The advertisement features a close-up of a woman’s face and her holding a ketchup bottle. The advertisement’s imagery and text promotes the hassle-free design of the bottle and also reinforces stereotypical implications about the daintiness and weakness of women. The implication that a woman would need her husband or another physical aid to open a ketchup bottle portrays her as an everyday damsel in distress. The woman is white, wears makeup and has her hair done. The expression on her face demonstrates surprise at her own ability to open the bottle. Viewers of the advertisement may have been intrigued by a convenient, easy to open bottle, but there were likely some females who would have been annoyed that they were used as an example of something lacking strength and independence. The advertisement is extremely sexist by today’s standards but was common at the time.


This image is a movie poster for a 1953 action movie titled Port Sinister (“Port Sinister”). The poster features a woman with her mouth gagged and arms tied behind her under threat of a giant crab attack awaiting a heroic rescue by one of the male characters. The poster represents the cliché damsel in distress whose life is at risk by an external supernatural threat. The movie poster portrays her as helpless, vulnerable, and attractive. The man in the red shirt appears concerned for her safety and may attempt to save her from the giant crab. The damsel in distress narrative was and is popular because it glorifies and further masculinizes the male protagonist. Male viewers may have subscribed to the idea that they too need to be excessively masculine in order to be considered attractive and desirable. Action movies are intended to be epic, exciting, and make the protagonists seem “cool” so an easy way of achieving this would be to have the male lead save a beautiful woman from certain danger.

This image is from a DC Comics comic book Secret Love #83, “Run for Love!” (“MoMA Learning”). It was created by Tony Abruzzo in the 1960’s. The artist presents a female character in the forefront drowning with a thought bubble above her head that reads, “I don’t care if I have a cramp! I’d rather sink than call Mal for help!” A shirtless man in the background floating on some debris in the water seems to see her and appears ready to act. The woman is in danger by both natural causes: drowning, and her own internal struggle: refusing to ask for help out of stubbornness or fear. The name “Mal” is often indicative of an evil or deceptive character so perhaps she is choosing her own fate. The cartoon likely would have inspired readers in the 1960’s to want to be like the heroic male character or the dainty attractive woman. What made her attractive at the time was the way she was portrayed as helpless, meaning she needed someone else (a man) to come and save her, which would make him feel strong and needed. The image of the drowning girl went on to inspire Roy Lichtenstein who appropriated it in his artwork Drowning Girl. Lichtenstein used it to call attention to the classic male hero and female damsel in distress story, and the strict gender roles delineated by society in general.


Works Cited:

“Beyond Belief: Shocking Vintage Adverts from the ‘Golden Age’ .” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 24 Dec. 2015, www.telegraph.co.uk/goodlife/living/beyond-belief-shocking-vintage-adverts-from-the-golden-age/alcoa-aluminium/.

“MoMA Learning.” MoMA, www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/lichtenstein-drowning-girl-1963/.

“Port Sinister.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0046199/.

Discussion — One Response

  • Madeline Shearer 02/22/2021 on 5:47 PM

    Madeline Shearer-Colleague Comments
    It’s no shocker that decades and even years ago women were looked at in a different way than they are now. However, something I had never noticed was not only how women were portrayed differently, but today they are portrayed in the complete opposite way. Many brands and companies now focus on the empowerment of women and the confidence within them rather than portraying them as weak and almost childlike. The industry of advertisement did a complete 180 when it comes to how they show women to the public. Not only did they completely change their (and everyone else’s) outlook, but its also interesting to note how both tactics of showing women in the media, had the same effects. Back in the 60s and 50s showing women as damsels in distress is what sold products, movies, and everything in-between. Now when you fast forward to the 2010 decade and beyond companies that portray women as strong independent beings tend to get more praise and support in the media hence selling more goods and products; one example of this is the Aerie Real Me campaign. Another aspect I found interesting was how when the damsel in distress trope was used it was almost always used in the presence of a male or relative to a male. The last two examples use the women in distress as an outlet for a man to step in a save her and show off his big ole masculinity, additionally in the first image it uses the phrase “You mean a women can open it?” which gives the impression that a man can do it with ease regardless if it’s hard or not. However, when you look today in entertainment and advertisements even when a women is shown in a strong way, it rarely has anything to do with another man being weak in her presence, or vise versa. Media even in the last ten years has changed considerably, and drastically in the past decades. So it’s not necessarily a shock to see these changes in the image of women but when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture it definitely puts a lot into perspective.

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